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S.F. floral designer: 'Wow flowers on a limited budget'

The women of San Francisco's consular corps learned how to create "Wow flowers on a limited budget" last week, when San Francisco floral designer Charlotte Mayfield shared many of her thrifty design secrets.

At the home of the Canadian Consulate General on Jackson Street, petals flew and stems hit the floor as Mayfield created four huge arrangements, each showing how to make dramatic impact without spending very much on actual flowers.

"You entertain the world," Mayfield told the women, who are consuls themselves or married to consuls from England, Japan, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Singapore, France, Equador and other countries. "When you have long dining tables and huge buffet tables, it's a challenge to stretch a small or non-existent flower budget. But you can do it economically if you keep your eyes open."

Mayfield's first piece of advice - to follow tree trimmers' or gardeners' trucks - sent the women into gales of laughter. They soon sobered up when they realized the wisdom of gathering free greenery, which often has choice blossoms on it, wherever it's available.

"And always keep clippers and a plastic garbage bag in the trunk of your car for collecting along the roadside," Mayfield said. "It helps to have a very patient husband, too."

Mayfield has presented programs to the Filoli Flower Committee, most Bay Area garden clubs, Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco and creates arrangements for the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show and the Museum Society's annual "Bouquets to Art." She has studied with the international stars of flower arranging, like Sheila Macqueen in Great Britain, Jean Dominique Gally in France and Gregor Lersch in Germany. Yet her down-to-earth message to anyone is "you can create beautiful arrangements, too;" and "don't be afraid to try anything."

Here are more of her tips:

Create flower arranging containers from inexpensive plastic urns from chain stores by spray-painting them with a texturizing coat (purchased at a hardware store), then spray-painting in dark green, gray or off-white. The best paint effects come from spraying one color as an undercoat, then another color on top, most of which is wiped off.

Into this type of container, or an old metal or wood container (keep your eye out for suitable candidates at thrift shops or garage sales), pour plaster of paris paste and then insert a round wooden dowel, such as a snapped-off heavy bamboo stake, in the middle: the dowel should be about twice as tall as the container. Let the plaster of paris harden. Then, for a dramatic arrangement, thread two or more blocks of damp floral foam, lengthwise, onto the dowel. This gives you the foundation for an arrangement for any season. First cover the foam with stems of greenery and then, depending on the season, decorate with stems of roses or other flowers and/or fruit attached to kebab sticks.

Mayfield used a combination of rosy apples, pomegranates, wisteria vines with yellowed leaves, and larger fall leaves to create a fantasy of autumn color. As a base, over the floral foam, she attached a layer of colorful fall leaves with hairpins. Then she simply poked the vines and fruit sticks through the leaf base, into the damp foam.

For another occasion, start with fresh floral foam, and repaint the container another color - the point is to have fun.

Before purchasing flowers, look first in your garden to see what foliage and flowers are available. Buy flowers which will harmonize with materials which are free.

Buy flowers which are in season and plentiful; of course they will be less expensive than those flown from far-off lands. Farmers' markets offer the best prices because vendors' blooms are seasonal and brought from nearby fields.

Being economical means helping flowers last as long as possible. "Conditioning" is the process of cutting the stems when you bring them home and placing them up to flower level in water which has been amended with a bit of bleach, sugar in the form of 7-Up or Sprite (don't use diet drinks because they don't have real sugar in them) and a bit of lemon juice. Let flowers soak as long as possible before arranging, preferably overnight. Cut stems again before arranging.

If flowers are arranged using floral foam, cut out a little piece of foam near an edge of the container, down to the bottom of the container, so that you can insert the spout of a watering can down deep into the foam ; water every day, if possible.

Spring flowers and bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, benefit from adding vodka or gin to their water.

Look in the funeral and memorial section of the floral supplies dealers at the San Francisco Flower Market on Brannan Street (the public is allowed to shop in these stores, but you must pay somewhat higher prices if you do not have a re-sale license). There are shaped wreaths and plastic trays for floral foam which enable you to create long centerpieces, perfect for long dinner tables.

Mayfield covered the damp foam in a long green plastic tray with galax leaves and then built a stunning arrangement of, among other things, yellow yarrow, gray pods and stems, and small sunflowers. She added dark red dock weed, collected along a roadside, and dark Queen Anne's lace, eventually building the creation out to a length of almost eight feet. "This whole arrangement only costs about $10," she said.

For the most drama, stick to one color or theme for an event, carrying the same colors from room to room. Usually two complementary colors, such as purple and yellow or red and green are most effective. Keep in mind that the addition of a touch of yellow or white greatly enhances any floral arrangement, subtly intensifying other colors.

If you use your dining table as a buffet table for holiday parties, create an extremely tall centerpiece which can be seen from around the room, even with people standing next to the table.

Charlotte Mayfield's rule for the height of centerpieces is to keep them just 10 1/2 inches high and under, so that dinner guests can see each other across the table.

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